About the research
The Van Gogh Museum embarked on material-technical research into the paintings of Vincent van Gogh together with Shell and the the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency as early as 2000. The first phase encompassed the examination of 97 paintings executed by Van Gogh in Antwerp and Paris, a period in which he made great strides in his development. Part of the research was conducted in the highly technologically advanced laboratories of the research partners, and yielded a great deal of information about Van Gogh's painting technique and use of materials.
In 2005 Shell became the Van Gogh Museum's official Partner in Science. Together with the the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency and London's Courtauld Institute, the research was continued as an investigation into the studio practice of Van Gogh and that of his contemporaries. The work of early contemporaries such as Anton Mauve and Anthon van Rappard was studied, as well as paintings by artists Van Gogh met when he worked in Paris: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac and Emile Bernard.
Every year a presentation on the second floor of the Van Gogh Museum offers a peek behind the scenes of the Studio practice research project. These small-scale exhibitions shed light on aspects of the scientific and technical research.
To start off with, a painting is always examined minutely with the naked eye. Subsequently the restorer decides the way in which the work will be examined in greater detail, and the techniques to be deployed. This always involves an examination of the paint surface under a microscope. Using infrared reflectography and x-rays and through analyses of pigment samples, researchers are able to reconstruct the creation of a painting, examining layer by layer the way in which the image has been built up. Such research yields surprising discoveries about the materials used. See also the overview of the research techniques that are applied.
Outcomes of material technical research
The research is of great importance in understanding Van Gogh's way of working and that of his contemporaries and the way in which they influenced one another. Based in part on these research results, restorers and curators are able to determine who the painter is of a particular work, what the work looked like originally and how it should be restored. If research shows that a painting is in bad condition, they may decide that it cannot risk being allowed to travel for exhibitions. Some canvases have become so fragile that the tremors occasioned by transport can harm the artwork.